How Oil Workers In Nigeria’s Restive Niger Delta Sleep With One Eye Open

By Ben Edokpayi, Senior Contributing Editor/The African Times-USA  

The early morning ritual of a shower had just ended and this reporter was dressing up when the alarm on the Asabo oil platform on the Atlantic Ocean off the Nigerian coast sounded off.  

My Asabo Platform oil rig room mate, Akinyele Okundare, a Newswatch magazine (a rested Nigerian newsmagazine) photographer trying unsuccessfully to mask his fear, asked: “Why should this – the alarm- be happening now that we are here?” This was at the cusp of the perennial spate of insurgency and militancy in Nigeria’s rich oil basin. And Akinyele’s fear was not unfounded.

Akinyele had hardly finished speaking his palpable fears when the public address system came alive: “Fire on the platform! Fire on the platform! All men are to assemble at the abandoned platform stations and await further instructions.” 

My colleague and I made for the door of our room and dashed through the tiny passage to the lower deck where four abandon platform sea vessels, APS, are located. About eight other men wearing their hard hats and life jackets were already there. 

The journalists realized that they had forgotten their own life-jackets under their double bunk beds. 

They raced back to their room to collect them. 

As everybody gathered near the rafts, one of the men said the fire was in the gas injection plant. 

Gas fire? My mind, in a whirl, momentarily flashed back to the travail of the 166 men who died the year before (1988) in the Piper Alpha oil platform tragedy in the English North Sea. 

After a wait that seemed interminable, the voice came over the PA (Public Address) system. 

“Fire under control, fire under control. All men are to report in the lounge for further instructions.” 

Everyone trooped single file into the lounge where Mike Akpan, the ExxonMobil loss prevention coordinator for offshore installations WEST, thanked the men for responding promptly to the alarm call.

As the men dispersed to get ready for the day’s work, what amazed my inquiring reportorial mind was the trace of no worry on their faces. 

But for the journalists it had been a rude awakening to life on an oil platform. For workers on Asabo platform and others who live and work on ExxonMobil’s six other production platforms on the Atlantic Ocean, just off the Coastline of Ibeno near Eket in Akwa Ibom State, such alarm calls are a regular occurrence.

There are over 40 of such platforms but only seven of them have offshore workers. 

There are no women on the platforms (as of 1989), because, according to Felix Esi, ExxonMobil area operations manager, “They have just not risen to the challenges of working offshore.” Some of the men who work there stay on board for two weeks in one go, and others for as long as two months. How they get there is no problem. But how they would get out in case of an emergency, like the one that almost happened on May 26, 1988 is the problem. Life jackets, rafts and Whittaker capsules, to aid escape in distress situations, abound on the platform, but in many serious offshore accidents their use for escape can be minimal. Although ExxonMobil won an award in 1983 for its safety records, the fear of danger is an ever present feeling on the offshore oil platform. For a first timer, it grips one even before one gets there. It begins from the Mobil airstrip at Eket (A few blocks from the home of my maternal aunt, Mrs. Ekaette Ette, mother to a cousin who died in the 9/11 saga in New York!) where one just cannot ignore the many posters reminding travelers of safety precautions on the Bristow Bell helicopters that ferry workers to the platform hourly.

“Oops! Keep your hard hat chin strap down in the vicinity of helicopter landing,” cautions a poster, and then follows the routine advice from a ExxonMobil aviation personnel to “have your life-jacket permanently strapped on when flying.” 

And for the first-time traveler, the apprehension begins to well-up like gas from a new well. 

Somehow you remember reading somewhere that “the first thing you do when you arrive on an off-shore oil installation is arrange how to get off it again in an emergency.” 

On the Ubit PP (production platform, on shore there are similar ones including A Shell BP Plant near Oleh, Delta State), which is some 40 Kilometers off the onshore Qua Iboe Terminal, QIT, in Ibeno, there has not been any cause for the 17 men that work there in turns to abandon the platform in an emergency. 

But Akinyele Okundare, my photographer colleague almost did when the helicopter landed on the Ubit PP May 25. The blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that greeted the eye had a dizzying effect on the head, and if the visitor had not been restrained by his hosts he could have plunged down 100 feet to the barracuda and shark-infested waters. 

But for Bartholomew Ibekwe, the production foreman on board the Ubit PP, “there is no risk at all as far as offshore facilities are concerned.” 

For him and his co-workers, the week-long schedule that requires visits to the external platforms has killed the fear of the ocean. 

The daily visits are for well-testing, house-keeping, mechanical jobs and instruments testing. At the time of our work there as journalists, the Ubit PP is capable of producing 46,000 barrels of oil per day. 

Offshore workers find life on board the platform quite exciting. Ibekwe’s family in Aba has had to endure his occasional absence for the nine years he has worked offshore. 

There are enough recreational facilities to break the tedium of the long stay on board. There are indoor games, and a video game. The television receives programmes from Aba, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Lagos, Benin, Enugu as well as from Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Communication with land is by telephone, radio and transceiver. 

On the Trident IV south of the Ubit PP, life is a different experience altogether. Leased by Sedko Forex to ExxonMobil, the Trident IV is currently engaged in drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Ninety-three men work on the Trident IV but not all of them are ExxonMobil staff. There are at least five other sub-contractor (as of 1989) companies – Otis, Schlumberger, Seaweld, Santa Fe and Mothercat, engaged in various activities on board. The oil rig is a meeting point of men of different nationalities (where no politics or propaganda is allowed.) They work about 48 kilometers off the Nigerian shores but some of them do not know what the country looks like because immediately they arrive Lagos they are flown by Exxon Mobil to the airstrip at Eket and from there by helicopter to the offshore installation. Les Morrison, the drilling superintendent on Trident IV, is spending his 28-day shift on the rig from ExxonMobil in Canada. For Morrison who has spent 10 of his 42 years working off-shore, the job provides “lots of better chance to plan your life.” Wayne McNeely, an American who is working off the Nigerian coast for the first time, after 33 years of service in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil finds the job “still exciting.” 

Work on rigs like the Trident IV is fraught with danger, especially on the drilling platform where a wrong strike or mistake by the foremen can ignite crude oil or gas. 

Blow-outs, as such incidents are referred to, have been the major causes of accidents on off-shore installations.

Such an accident occurred April 27, 1988 on an oil rig operated by Shell Petroleum some 50 kilometers south of the Bonny Terminal near Port Harcourt. 

The rig Al Baz, valued at 74 million dollars, was devastated by a blow-out while drilling was going on in about 3,360 feet of water. The incident occurred about 3:00am on that fateful day, and seven hours later only the helipad of the rig, which was as high as a six-storey building, was visible. 

Five people reportedly died in the accident. In blow-out accidents like the Al Baz’s, emergency precautions can be of little help, but supervision can sometimes help to reduce the degree of damage. 

Supervision can keep drilling superintendents on their toes for days on end. Cyril Ajagu, assistant drilling superintendent on board the Trident IV, had only caught about six hours of sleep in three days, by the time Newswatch magazine reporters visited the platform on May 27, 1988. 

According to him, “my bed looks well made because I have not slept on it for quite some time now.” 

Even when the offshore workers sleep they do so with an eye and both ears open to pick up the alarm call. Life on the oil platform is not all about danger. It can be plenty of fun, too. One is lulled to sleep by the sooting flow of the ocean water and awakened to the fresh cool feel of unpolluted air on the face. It is not only the air that is unadulterated. Rodents and insects are a rare sight, too. Then there is the uninhibited attitude to existence by the workers. On the platform, it is not strange to see people who have not had a shave or a bath for days. Then once in a while, along comes a worker on the deck that does not care about a wool rip in his pair of trousers that runs from his calf to the ankle. Of course, incidents like stealing, drunkenness and fighting are forbidden. Absolutely no kind of aggression is allowed. And that was a great lesson in co-existence and patience elsewhere in California on how to deal with odd characters. 

After a hard day’s work on the platform, there is always the food to look forward to. The meals served are sumptuous. Dinner may be cottage pie, breast pork filler or chicken, cut green beans and French fries. The menu is varied. Dessert consists of beverages and ice cream. There is always the tendency for the off-shore worker to return to land with a robust and healthy look. Unlike in the North Sea area where the weather condition can be violent with the winds sometimes gusting up to 145 KPH and the waves rising up to 40 feet, the waters of the Atlantic around Mobil off-shore concession areas, are calm and serene. On a clear morning, the outlines of the Cameroon Mountains are visible on the Asabo, more than 160 kilometers away. And what a sight to behold. Sunset, too, can be a wonderful experience. On the deck of the Asabo, the sensuous tranquil at night is always enhanced by the endless flare of gas nearby. In the past, Mobli gave its platforms names of planets such as Venus and Saturn, but now all that has been replaced by names taken from animals, insects and fauna peculiar to the area. Asabo, for instance, means the python; Idoho, an eel; while the Ubit is a mole.